Waterskiing: simple as home

It took a couple of decades for Jon to catch my vision of waterskiing behind his fishing boat, a sturdy Lund with a fifty-horsepower motor. He was a Twin Cities high schooler when he bought it with his dad, and since I came into the picture, he always claimed it wasn’t powerful enough to pull adult skiers. Hmmpf.

But then, in 2019, a friend gave Jon a no-longer-needed set of water skis, and he actually brought them along on our Fourth of July camping trip.

We were in Washington state, where we’d lived since 2001, and headed for Lake Merwin, a reservoir on the Lewis River, which gets its start on Mount Adams.

Sploosh. Sploosh. Sploosh. Sploosh. Sploosh.

That was the sound of me biffing it five times in that snowmelt water before my chilled muscles told me it was time to let the dream go.

Brrrrrr. Lake Merwin, 2019

Later that summer, we hopped on our friends’ speedboat, a craft built for skiing, and again I dropped into the water. This time we were on the mighty Columbia River, between Vancouver and Portland. The boat rocketed me out of the water for a fast, choppy, exhilarating ride. (An encouraging way to welcome a new decade of life!)

Big water! Columbia River, 2019

Fast forward through pandemic time and a cross-country move — boat and all — back to Minnesota.

Earlier this month, we brought it out for our annual lake week with Jon’s family. It was the first time in nearly twenty years that we could pack up our own car with our own gear, instead of flying in and borrowing everything needed for a week at a cabin.

This time I ran around the house with a laundry basket gathering the basics — shampoo and soap, dish soap, towels, sponges — and piled the car high with our favorite foods. Jon hooked up his boat and filled it with our bicycles and — hooray! — skis, kneeboard and tube, the latter of which was a hit with all three generations.

When it was my turn, I selected the skis, which Jon slid across the water to me. As he tossed me the rope, I recalled my Columbia River adventure and imagined myself rising up out of the water. Skis on my feet, I stepped through the process that had gotten me up in the past, beginning in junior high at friends’ cabins:

  1. Curl up in a ball and lie back on the water.
  2. Keep the ski tips close and parallel.

“Hit it!” I called.

Sploosh! And then sploosh, sploosh, sploosh and sploosh.

Stupid boat, I thought, handing the rope off to someone else who wanted to knee-board.

Later that evening, Jon realized something: After fishing earlier in the day, he had forgotten to empty the water from the boat’s live well (a windowless tank built into the hull for storing caught fish alive). All that water probably had weighed down the boat, taking away some of its get-up-and-go, so it took more time to lift me out of the water than I had strength to hold on.

The next evening, after supper, the rest of the family headed up to the lodge for ice cream cones, while Jon, D and I went down to the beach. Jon hopped behind the steering wheel of his boat, D took the spotter’s seat, and I waded into the lake and wiggled my feet into the ski boots. The live well was empty.

“How many tries do I get?” I called.

“Ten!” Jon said.

Ugh, I thought.

This time I went down my check list — curl up in a ball, keep the tips together — and added one more bit of advice I’d remembered:

Bend your elbows.

“Hit it!” I yelled, as I focused on staying curled, together and bent. The motor strained, the rope tightened, and soon I was on top of the water. We all whooped!

Back on the water, Minnesota, 2021

The golden hour was nearing, when the wind stills, the water flattens out and the sun’s waning light turns the water, the trees and everyone around into the most beautiful version of themselves.

After settling into my skis, I leaned left to leave the boat’s washboard wake, gliding down its slope onto the calm evening water, what has always felt to me like the top of a delicious milkshake, skis gliding over its dense, creamy sweetness, leaving bubbles in my wake.

Soon we were around the bend, out of view of the resort, and memories of past ski moments returned. Our church’s senior pastor — surely older than I am now — impressing my friends and I, pre-teens, at a nearby lake by popping out of the water like nothing in his black swimming trunks and brilliant smile. Friends with boats pulling other friends and me as teens, also not far from this place, as we experimented with two skis and then one, hours and hours on the water, never often enough to master the sport but long enough to develop a love for the feel of that chill wind in my hair.

I held on for Jon’s entire course, a giant figure eight covering the south end of the lake and, as we neared the beach where we had started, I let go of the rope and — sploosh — landed, thinking this is how summer is supposed to feel, how skiing is not that hard when you remember the three easy steps, how life is not that hard when you keep it simple.

How things make more sense when you’re back in the place that has always felt like home, which for me is Minnesota.

We joined the rest of the family on the porch of the lodge, and I shared, elated, that I had gotten up on the skis. I told my sister-in-law’s partner that I had figured out the problem (in addition to, ahem, the full live well): I had previously forgotten to bend my elbows.

I listed my three steps, and he nodded knowingly.

“Yeah,” he said, folding into the position I described. “Just sit in a chair, reading a book.”

Simple as that.

A man and his boat, 2021

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